Inspired by Subaru’s factory-backed Rally series race cars and tuned for maximum performance, the 2021 Subaru WRX STI will overwhelm the faint of heart. In fact, the STI’s finicky turbocharged flat-four cylinder engine and firm suspension can startle even ardent driving enthusiasts. However, its tenacious all-wheel-drive system and manual-only transmission are notable hallmarks of the sporty Subaru sedan. And if the STI is too spicy for you, there’s always the less edgy-albeit-still-raw WRX. While the STI lacks the cargo space of rival hi-to hatchbacks such as the Honda Civic Type R, it’s better equipped to conquer in all four seasons thanks to its all-wheel drive. Sure, its noisy operation and other obsolete attributes will cause some shoppers to spurn it, but the car’s rawness and rowdiness will fascinate masochists, er, purists
What’s New for 2021?
The 2021 WRX STI carries over with almost no changes. The base model does now come standard with passive hands-free entry and push-button start.
Engine, Transmission, and Performance
The WRX STI’s turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-four is eager to rev and pumps out a characteristic flat-four burble from the car’s quad exhaust pipes. But this old engine is not as smooth or as hard-hitting as the smaller turbo fours powering the Subie’s closest peers. Along with some initial lag from the big turbo spooling up, the engine’s lack of low-end grunt manifests in a short, punchy power delivery that can be cumbersome around town. Working its standard six-speed manual gearbox is a must to keep the car pulling strongly, including abusive, high-rpm clutch drops to achieve maximum acceleration from a standstill. Driven with full fury, however, the STI’s controls sync together effectively. With its buttoned-down chassis and all-wheel-drive traction, the STI is more athletic and enjoyable on twisty back roads than the workaday WRX. The firm suspension keeps excessive body motion in check at the expense of some ride comfort on rougher pavement, but this hottest Subaru is still livable as a daily driver for enthusiasts. Its electrically assisted steering is quick, direct, and blessed with a moderate feel, while the adjustable center differential allows the driver to further fine-tune the chassis by varying the drivetrain’s front-to-rear torque split. The STI’s pedals are nicely spaced for race-driver-like heel-and-toe downshifts, with the firm brake pedal returning good initial bite and easy modulation.
Fuel Economy and Real-World MPG
The WRX STI’s engine is larger and of an older design than most of today’s hot four-cylinders, which, in combination with the Subaru’s short gearing, means it is the least frugal in its class. In terms of fuel-economy ratings, the EPA estimates that some four-wheel-drive mid-size pickups will actually take you farther on a gallon of gas than the STI. The government rates the zestiest WRX at 16 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. During our 200-mile fuel-economy test, it beat its highway rating by 3 mpg (25 total)—but that still trails rivals by several mpg.
Interior, Comfort, and Cargo
As with most sport compact cars, the WRX STI’s humble origins are most visible inside its cabin, which is pretty basic in quality, layout, and feature count. Despite the red seatbelts and red accents on the optional Recaro seats, the ambiance is rather dark, and the updated materials and additional sound insulation do little to elevate the STI’s trappings proportionately with its price. The STI is fairly capacious considering its three-box sedan body, thanks to a roomy trunk and a 60/40-split-folding rear seat. However, all of Subaru’s competitors are hatchbacks that offer greater versatility for swallowing cargo. It has adequate storage for small items on its center console, with the main spots being its console bin and smallish door pockets.